fb-pixel Skip to main content

European populists who looked to Trump now look away

His refusal to accept defeat and the violence that followed appears to have damaged the prospects of similarly minded leaders across the continent

A news screen in Essen, Germany, displayed an image of Joe Biden last week. The headline read: “After chaos night in Washington, US Congress confirms Biden as next US President.’’
A news screen in Essen, Germany, displayed an image of Joe Biden last week. The headline read: “After chaos night in Washington, US Congress confirms Biden as next US President.’’Martin Meissner/Associated Press

BRUSSELS — For Europe’s populists, the electoral defeat of President Trump, who has been a symbol of success and a strong supporter, was bad enough. But his refusal to accept defeat and the violence that followed appears to have damaged the prospects of similarly minded leaders across the continent.

“What happened in the Capitol following the defeat of Donald Trump is a bad omen for the populists,” said Dominique Moïsi, a senior analyst at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne. “It says two things: If you elect them, they don’t leave power easily, and if you elect them, look at what they can do in calling for popular anger.”


The long day of rioting, violence, and death as Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol last week has presented a clear warning to countries such as France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland about underestimating the force of populist anger and the prevalence of conspiracy theories aimed at democratic governments.

Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels, said the unrest showed how the populist playbook was founded on “us versus them and leads to violence.”

“But it’s very important to show where populism leads and how it plays with fire,” she added. “When you’ve aroused your supporters with political arguments about us versus them, they are not opponents but enemies who must be fought with all means, and it both leads to violence and makes conceding power impossible.”

Just how threatening Europe’s populists found the events in the United States could be seen in their reaction: One by one, they distanced themselves from the rioting or fell silent.

In France, Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Rally, is expected to mount another significant challenge to President Emmanuel Macron in the 2022 election. She was firm in supporting Trump, praised his election and Brexit as precursors to populist success in France, and echoed his insistence that the US election was rigged and fraudulent. But after the violence, which she said left her “very shocked,” Le Pen pulled back, condemning “any violent act that aims to disrupt the democratic process.”


Like Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, populist leader of the Italian antiimmigrant League party, said, “Violence is never the solution.” In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, a prominent right-wing party leader, criticized the attack on the US legislature. With elections in his country in March, Wilders wrote on Twitter, “The outcome of democratic elections should always be respected, whether you win or lose.”

Thierry Baudet, another high-profile Dutch populist, has aligned himself with Trump and the antivaccination movement, and in the past has called the independence of the judiciary and a “phony parliament” into question.

But already in difficulty over reported anti-Semitic remarks and rifts in his party, Forum for Democracy, Baudet, too, has had little to say so far.

Still, Forum for Democracy and Wilders’ Party for Freedom together are likely to get about 20 percent of the vote in the Dutch elections, said Rem Korteweg, an analyst at the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands.

Even if populist leaders seem shaken by the events in Washington and nervous about further violence at the inauguration Jan. 20, there remains considerable anxiety among mainstream politicians about antielitist, antigovernment political movements in Europe, especially amid the confusion and anxiety produced by the coronavirus pandemic.


Janis A. Emmanouilidis, director of studies at the European Policy Center in Brussels, said that there was no uniform European populism. The various movements have different characteristics in different countries, and outside events are only one factor in their varying popularity, he noted.

“Now the most pressing issue is COVID-19, but it’s not at all clear how politics will play out postpandemic,” he said. “But,” he added, “the fear of the worst helps to avoid the worst.”

The “amazing polarization of society” and the violence in Washington “creates a lot of deterrence in other societies,” Emmanouilidis said. “We see where it leads, we want to avoid it, but we are aware that we, too, could get to that point, that things could escalate.”

Enrico Letta, a former prime minister of Italy who is now dean of the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po, said that Trump “gave credibility to the disruptive attitudes and approaches of populist leaders in Europe, so having him out is a big problem for them.” Then came the riot, he said, “which I think changed the map completely.”

Now, like Le Pen, Italian populist leaders have felt “obliged to cut their ties to some forms of extremism,” Letta said. “They have lost this ability to preserve this ambiguity about their ties to extremists on the margins,” he added.

He said that Trump’s defeat and the violent responses to it were considerable blows to European populism. The coronavirus disaster alone, he added, represented “the revenge of competence and the scientific method” against the obscurantism and antielitism of populism, noting that the troubles surrounding Brexit have also been a blow.


“We even start to think that Brexit has been something positive for the rest of Europe, allowing a relaunch,” Letta said. “Nobody followed Britain out, and now there’s the collapse of Trump.”

But Moïsi, the Institut Montaigne analyst, struck a darker note. Having written about the emotions of geopolitics, he sees a dangerous analogy in what happened at the Capitol, noting that it could go down as a heroic event among many of Trump’s supporters.

The rioting reminded him, he said, of the failed Beer Hall Putsch by Adolf Hitler and the early Nazi Party in Munich in 1923.

That effort to overthrow the Bavarian government also had elements of farce and was widely ridiculed, but it became “the foundational myth of the Nazi regime,” Moïsi said. Hitler spent the prison term he was handed after the violence writing “Mein Kampf.”